Monterey Symphony, May 22

By Scott MacClellandAAM & fiddle

THE FINAL CONCERT of the Monterey Symphony’s 70th season would, in any metropolitan area, be called a pops concert. But for infrequent performances in the Monterey Bay region its contents were refreshingly, well, fresh. Unless you are addicted to classical radio which gives such fare constant over-exposure.

The program-theme of conductor Max Bragado-Darman was caprice–capricho, capriccio or whim, depending on your choice of language. But the opening work, Antonín Dvořák’s Scherzo Capriccioso, is far too structured and formalized to satisfy the sense of whim, which probably explains why it is seldom heard in concert. Still its tunes are memorable and the Sunday performance in Carmel made, if anything, a big symphonic impression.

Enter Anne Akiko Meyers, San Diego-born violin virtuoso who finished her studies at the Juilliard School with the legendary Dorothy Delay. She now has ‘lifetime use’ of the famed Guarneri del Gesù “Ex-Vieuxtemps” that, after Henri Vieuxtemps in the 19th century, was played by Yehudi Menuhin (born 100 years ago last month), Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman. (Its current owner prefers to remain anonymous, but an article in The Economist in 2013 said it was purchased for more than $16 million, making it, to date, the most expensive violin ever sold. To read about it, click HERE.)

Meyers opened her set with the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso by Saint-Saëns, after its moody opening all sparkle and fireworks. Her impulsive response to its temptations captured the spirit of caprice perfectly. The polish and subtlety of her playing were remarkable for how clearly they were communicated.

For the ensuing Tzigane by Ravel, which opens with a lengthy solo cadenza, she dug deep into its brooding gypsy spirit, even though it was faux-gypsy, more like something you’d encounter in a smoky nightclub in old Buda than an encampment on the outskirts of town. The solo passage showed off the fabulous sound of the 1741 instrument but not more than the beauty of tone Meyers extracted from it. In the animated later portion, with orchestra, it also availed more of the virtuosic techniques that trace back to Niccolò Paganini, the master technician, including left hand pizzicato and sul ponticello (bowing on the bridge.) Like the Saint-Saëns, Meyers completely owned her interpretation, and made it all sound easy. Hopefully, she can be enticed to return for music of greater substance.

The concert concluded with the two most popular orchestral caprices, Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien of 1880 and Rimsky-Korsakov’s five-movement Capriccio on Spanish Themes—known outside of Russia as Capriccio Espagnol—of 1887. Both pieces masterfully composed and eminently danceable, the latter displays more orchestral colors and gives abundant cameo solos to players in the orchestra. These were fine performances that won high approval from the audience.

On a side note, one of the most acclaimed recordings of the Rimsky-Korsakov, from 1957, is by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ataúlfo Argenta—which remains available on CD and for the aficionado at a price—vinyl. Argenta was the musician who, by direct witness in his native Spain, inspired the boy Bragado-Darman to become a conductor.